I’ve been working remotely since 2007. Along the way, I’ve learned a few things about how my workspace impacts my productivity. Home automation has enabled subtle improvements to my life and productivity as a remote employee – and subtle improvements can have big impacts.
When I first started out working remotely, I was in my mid-20s and every day was a hustle. I didn’t have any family obligations, and my social life was slow at the time. I worked from anywhere, anytime. I’d work from my couch at 2am. I’d work from my desk during the day. I’d wake up and check/respond to email from bed. I’d walk to a coffee shop and work.
I was just starting out freelancing, and it seemed important to me to do as much work as possible, and to be as responsive as possible to clients. I worked ridiculous hours to complete projects on fast turnarounds; I distinctly remember times even a few years into my freelance life where I’d literally work all night, walk up the street to Dunkin’ Donuts at 6am for some fresh donuts and coffee, and work some more.
Fast forward a few years; my social life gets busier, I wreck my hands typing thousands of words per day on my very non-ergonomic laptop keyboard, and I realize I’m getting too old to be pulling all-nighters for a few hundred dollars. Things have to change.
I set up an office, which was separate from my living space. The purpose of the office was work. The purpose of the living space was living. When I lived with roommates, my room had to do both, but I clearly defined those separate spaces. When I wasn’t living with roommates, I gave my office a dedicated room; it was my office. That’s where I went to work. And when I wasn’t in the office, I wouldn’t work. Simple, right?
Making my spaces work for me
Dedicated office space is great, but only if you go there and work. Sometimes, in winter in New England especially, my office would be cold and dark, and I just couldn’t pry myself from the warm, cozy, well-lit couch, where I’d huddle under a blanket and think about how I should be getting to work. Those days were a struggle.
When I lived with a partner who left the house for work, I’d have him go to the office and turn on a space heater and some lights for me, so it could warm up a bit; and then I’d force myself off the couch to say farewell to him at the door, and use the momentum of being up to head off to my office. That helped, but even that wasn’t always a foolproof method.
In 2015, after visiting a friend who had installed some Philips Hue lights behind her TV that provided some interesting mood lighting, we did the same. I thought it was a novelty; I could make it change colors depending on what I was watching, and it provided some additional lighting in a part of the room that wasn’t well-lit. And hey, how fun – the Hue app for my iPhone would let me set up Routines, so I could have the lights do different things on an automated schedule.
I set the lights to come on in the morning, while we were puttering around and waking up in the living room. When I noticed that my husband was leaving slightly later and later for work every day, I set the lights to turn off a few minutes before he ought to leave for work.
The first time this happened, he was amused. It was a subtle difference; the Hue bulbs were providing some nice mood lighting, but standing lamps provided the room lighting. We still had plenty of light, but it was enough of a reminder that he ought to leave – that he left. And I went to my office.
This trick worked so well, I did the same thing at night; I set the Hue lights to come on when it got dark, and turn off again when we really should be in bed. Voila, subtle bedtime reminder that works.
In time, we started switching more and more light bulbs to Hue lights. Today, we have Hue workspace lights in both of our offices (over our desks; the main room lights aren’t Hue – yet), Hue lights in the gym, Hue lights in the living room stand lamps, and Hue lights in the bedroom. And of course, we still have the behind-the-TV lights that kicked the whole thing off.
My automation has gotten more sophisticated. In the winter, the living room lights come on about 10 minutes after our alarms go off. The TV lights come on year-round, because the mood lighting is still nice; and when those turn off, it’s still our subtle reminder to go to work. There’s a 15-minute delay between when the TV lights go off and when the room lights go off; time for us to get on our way, but if we linger, the room lights turning off are a last call of sorts.
Our office workspace lights are set to turn off at 6pm. Again, they’re not room lights, so we still have light in the space, but the subtle change in light is enough to remind us “Hey, it’s time to stop working for the day! Wrap up your tasks and leave the office.”
The living room lights come on automatically when it gets dark, so we never have to come into a dark living room and fumble around. And they turn off again when we should have really gone to bed by now, serving as a subtle reminder to get to sleep if we haven’t already done it.
Color temperature and brightness matters, too. The bedroom lights are set to “relax” – a dim, warm mode. The living room lights are also warm, and we can make them dimmer closer to bed to optimize for sleepiness. The Hue light in the gym is set to “energize” – a bright daylight. This winter, I’m going to upgrade my office Hue lighting to give me a bright daylight during the morning, but switch to a warm, dimmer light later in the afternoon as evening approaches.
My favorite thing of all, now that everything is integrated with Apple Home Kit, is telling Siri on my iPhone to turn off the lights, and having all the Hue lights in the house go off (usually the bedroom and living room lights, but sometimes we’ve gone back up to our offices and may have forgotten to turn one of those lights off, too).
Lights were a big part of the equation in getting us to move from one area of our house to another when we should be starting/stopping work – but they weren’t the only answer. In that example I gave above, my office was cold and dark; lights solved the dark issue, but temperature was still a problem. A problem that moving to an ~84-year-old house in Vermont exacerbated.
Our bedroom is an addition to the first floor of the house, and we didn’t know this when we bought the place on a sunny summer day, but the addition is not well-insulated. In the winter, it’s regularly 5 to 10 degrees cooler than the rest of the house; in the summer, it’s that much warmer. The offices, being upstairs, are regularly warmer than the first floor.
All this translates to me really not wanting to get out of bed on a winter morning when it’s cold in the bedroom. Or setting the heat to a temperature – say 68 degrees – that’s fine in the living room where the thermostat is located, but makes our offices upstairs so hot I have to open a window, while the bedroom addition is still too cold.
It didn’t take long in our first winter in this house – November, to be exact – for me to start investigating smart thermostats. After some research, I landed on the Ecobee4 smart thermostat, which supported extra (wireless) sensors you could place in various rooms around the house.
The way we have the Ecobee configured, it attempts to provide the set temperature for the rooms that are occupied. This means that if we’re in the bedroom, it tries to heat the bedroom to whatever temperature we set (which typically means the living room and offices, where the other sensors are located, are too warm). If we’re in the offices, which tend to be the warmest rooms in the house, the Ecobee attempts to provide the set temperature there, which means the living room is cool, but the offices aren’t roasting us out.
This smart feature, combined with a very stepped series of temperature changes that are made much easier by home automation web interfaces, gets us to ideal temperatures to make it easier to move through the house on those cold winter days.
Around a half hour before it’s time to get up, the Ecobee starts warming the house from 58 to 64. That’s just enough to get me out of bed, and not make it too toasty in the rest of the house.
When we get up, it warms the house to 68, which is typically going by the living room sensor at that point as we’ve left the bedroom. When we get up to our offices, it’s around 70 degrees, which is a smidge warm for me in the winter, but it cools to the set 68 once the sensors figure out that the offices are the occupied rooms and the living room is no longer occupied.
In the evening, I like to snuggle up in my chair under a blanket and watch TV, read a book, or work on a project, so I have the temperature going back down to 64. An hour or two before bed, it drops to 62. Then, at bedtime, 58. That’s really too cold to linger in the rest of the house, although it’s the perfect temperature for sleeping under a nice thick comforter, so the temperatures – combined with the lighting cues – lead us to bed.
Good sleep, downtime leads to productive work time
Bottom line: home automation has made it easier to set and adhere to boundaries in a life where I work and live at home.
Getting enough sleep, and sleeping well, makes it possible to be more productive at work. My brain works better, and I’ve got more stamina to get through the afternoon slump. (I very rarely drink afternoon coffee these days, but I was doing it religiously in the bad old days when my work/home life was less structured.)
Good downtime is essential to avoiding burnout, or even just a slow-building, lingering resentment that gradually erodes work productivity. Stopping work at a set time and going off to do other things gives me protected downtime, which makes it easier to work during work time and enjoy downtime when it’s time for that.
Having a house that is optimized to give me exactly what I want where I want it – appropriate lighting and comfortable temperatures – makes it easier to move through the day, and be more productive.